Dr. Heather MacKenzie

Reaching and Teaching Children with Autism and other Special Needs


Excerpt from One Story at a Time


I was a squirmy, busy child.  I was happiest when I could run and imagine and be free.  I was bothered by sensations, like wrinkles in my clothes and certain food smells, but I loved bare feet and as little clothing as possible.  I am sure I bounced off the walls at times and then crashed into bed at night, soon slipping into a deep, deep sleep.

Even though I was typically on-the-go, one of my great pleasures was being read to.  I have to admit now that I did not independently read a chapter book until I was 11 years of age.  I loved being read to, reading to myself was too laborious.  I can just feel the comfort of my dad’s lap, snuggling into the crook of his arm, smelling his breath and his wonderful perfect-dad aftershave.  The stories he read varied from tales about animals by Thornton W. Burgess to stories about the Count of Monte Cristo.  I loved them all.  These were very special times for even my busy little self.  I actually relaxed and let the worries and happenings of the world flow away while my imagination took over.  I felt safe and secure and enjoyed hearing the same words and viewing the same pictures over and over.  Being bathed in new and familiar words and phrases and images formed a cocoon from everyday life.  Rhyming words and silly expressions were joyous discoveries.

What is going on when we share storybooks?

I now realize how much I learned about people, books, words and dreaming of different places and times from shared storybook reading experiences.  Let’s look at what was going on.

From a sensory point of view, I was surrounded by familiar aromas that I associated with warmth and safety.  Touch was deep and sure, enveloping me in the familiar web of my father’s arm and providing a calm, reassuring stillness.  Sights were narrowed to the book, the printed words and illustrations to the exclusion of other events, thoughts and ideas.  There was only me, my dad and the storybook.

Cognitively and behaviorally, I was learning to focus my attention, still my body and ignore irrelevant information.  Even if sounds and events occurred around us, I was rapt in the book reading.  It was like my father and I were submerged in the depths of this book and were aware of little else.  I learned that books are a source of pleasure and fun but also that they are read from front to back, starting with the title and author and then moving page by page to the conclusion.  I discovered that looking where my dad was focusing helped me to create images of those words.  I began to figure out what new words meant by receiving explanations and asking for clarification (I asked lots of questions).  I learned that context is important in deciphering the meaning of words.  Words needed to ‘fit’ with the rest of the ideas; for example, “pen” probably referred to where animals were kept if the story was about a farm.  Old familiar words were repeated and their meanings were reinforced and expanded.  In addition, I was seeing how words go together to form ideas and concepts.  I became accustomed to answering questions, filling in blanks if my father hesitated and correcting him if he missed a word or used a different word.  These skills would become important in my school years ahead.   I learned to become more responsive to others and to take turns.  My negotiation skills also improved when I tried to prompt my dad to read the book one more time or to read one more chapter.

Even though my father was not consciously trying to teach me all of these things, storybooks provided a wonderfully rich platform.  Now, after working with children with special needs for many years, I see all of the important developmental features.  I have used storybooks with children with special needs and, especially, those with autism.  Reading aloud to children can be a powerful and pleasurable process for engaging them and enhancing their development.  Storybooks can provide positive, enjoyable and powerful opportunities for learning.

Focus of this Book

One Story at a Time is a manual for therapists, teachers and other professionals involved in the lives of young children with special needs who want to get the most out of storybooks as a medium for enhancing development.  The goal of this book is to provide accessible information about the special features of shared storybook reading and simple ways to select, plan and present books.  I have endeavored to present information so that it is straightforward and useable.  The formats, simple decision trees and photocopiable forms have been developed so that the concepts and ideas in this book can be readily accessed and used to foster your important relationship with children.

Chapter 1 will provide an overview of important features and factors in shared storybook reading and why storybooks are a rich resource for enhancing development.

Chapter 2 will summarize research supporting the use of repeated storybook reading as well as my observations from use of storybooks with children with special needs.  Emphasis will be placed on the impact that shared storybook reading has on four major areas of development:

  1. Cognitive skills, including cognitive self-regulation, systematic approach, remembering, predicting and hypothesizing, cognitive flexibility, play development and symbolic thinking.
  2. Social and Behavioral skills, including joint attention, perspective-taking, reciprocity and shared participation and behavioral self-regulation.
  3. Language and Communication skills, including vocabulary development, sentence structure, conversation, and story structure.
  4. Academic skills, including positive attitude toward books and written expression, print and book conventions, pre-reading skills and pre-writing skills.

Chapter 3 will present important features and criteria for selecting appropriate storybooks and for determining their order of presentation.

Chapter 4 will discuss how to address the major learning and developmental needs of each child using storybooks.

Chapter 5 will present information and ideas on how to read storybooks effectively and how to use strategies, such as questions and comments, to engage the child and reinforce and extend learning.

Chapter 6 will discuss activities and materials for capturing and sustaining the child’s attention to storybooks and enhancing his development.

Chapter 7 will present ways for evaluating the impact of shared storybooks reading on a child’s development.

Chapter 8 will summarize key concepts.

The appendices include internet resources that may help you plan and implement shared storybook reading, a full report of the analysis of storybook features and planning and assessment forms for photocopying.


Chapter 1:  The Power of Storybooks

What factors are important in shared storybook reading?

Storybooks can offer magical ways to promote learning but careful attention must be given to four main factors: the adult, the child, the storybook and the setting.

The Adult.  The style and strategies used by the adult when reading a storybook are critical to the effectiveness in advancing learning in the child.  Calm assurance is central to success but that typically comes from the adult’s learning how to engage the child and how to focus on one story at a time.  In most cases, learning by children with special needs does not occur overnight and development is uneven.  That means that, when planning, you have to be prepared for repetition while at the same time being open to new possibilities.

We will look at how to plan storybook reading with children with special needs so that it is not overwhelming.  A great deal of the ‘art’ of shared storybook reading is simplifying the process, prioritizing goals and determining long term objectives.  In order for shared book reading to act as a rich learning opportunity, adults must use a variety of techniques to engage the child and keep him interested.  We will look at how to read books and how to use strategies to engage the child and facilitate learning.

The Child.  Each child has specific preferences, strengths and interests that affect how he will respond to different forms of teaching and how effectively he will learn.  In order to enhance his engagement in and learning from storybooks, these factors must be honored.  For more information on learning preferences and strengths in children, how to determine them and their implications for teaching and learning, see Every Child Wants to Learn (MacKenzie, 2009).

The Storybook.  The impact of the storybook on learning interactions is one of the factors that is rarely addressed by researchers.  Storybooks for preschoolers are typically accounts of events or series of events.  They introduce fictitious and often exaggerated experiences and characters, like giants, purple cats and green-eyed monsters.  Animacy of the objects and characters in storybooks is generally overstated, presenting animals that can talk, shoes that can dance on their own and gingerbread cookies that can run away.  There are few boundaries to the characters’ activities but usually there is an important underlying message.  For example, The Little Red Hen (Pinkney, 2006) and The Enormous Potato (Davis, 1998) focus on the value of helping others and cooperating.  There are also books that are simply enjoyable experiences with language, like Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do You See? (Martin, 1995). Storybooks mediate the interaction between the adult and the child, enticing the child into the learning experience.

The Setting.  Sensory information, such as sights, touch and smells, must be controlled in the learning environment in order to free the child for learning.  When the setting is well-organized and predictable to the child, he is able to relax and learn more effectively.  See Every Child Wants to Learn (MacKenzie, 2009) for more information on structuring the learning environment.

Why is shared storybook reading an effective medium for teaching and learning?

Unlike many other approaches to enhancing development in children with special needs, shared storybook reading does not feel like therapy.  Storybook reading is a normal part of childhood and does not feel like an intervention program.  Storybooks are fun to read for both the child and adult.  They offer a way to organize teaching in that each book acts as a learning unit.  Children enjoy repeating stories over and over so there are multiple opportunities to reinforce learning.  Storybooks can be used to promote development in all major areas.

Storybooks are part of typical childhood

Storybooks are a normal part of childhood and they do not have the air of therapy materials.  I find that a lot of children with special needs can sense intervention activities from 50 paces and can be immediately turned off.  Storybooks are read to and by preschoolers around the world and do not seem odd or out of place.  Books are everywhere and everyone seems to like them.  The child with special needs can be drawn into storybooks just like his peers and both will vie to participate.

Storybooks can be an effective means of inclusion

Storybooks and the mood set by the adult reading them can draw children to the interaction.  The use of shared storybook reading in a classroom setting can effectively attract and sustain the interest of children with a wide range of abilities.  The relationship among the adult, the storybook and each child can become a common ground for inclusion.  Regardless of the ages, stages and abilities of the children in a group, every child can respond to and benefit from the allure of storybooks.  They can derive pleasure and can learn from the interactions with the adult and with their classmates as well as from the storybooks.

Storybooks are cost-effective and accessible

Storybooks are not costly like so many special therapy materials.  They can be borrowed from libraries or friends or purchased inexpensively in secondhand stores or at garage sales.

When using storybooks to enhance a child’s development, no special equipment is needed to make the stories come alive.  With a little imagination along with ideas presented in this book, all you need is some paper, scissors, glue and markers to create activities and crafts.  Such activities will help to reinforce and extend learning.

Children’s storybooks typically are not intimidating to adults.  Parents who have reduced literacy skills usually find the storybooks accessible and the benefits to their children outweigh any concerns they may have.  Parents who are not fluent in the local language will also find children’s storybooks user-friendly.

Storybooks offer structure and organization

When using a storybook-based approach, the book determines the content and sequence of events.  It provides structure to teaching and learning and can allow the adult to focus more on other aspects of the interaction.  The book sets the stage and the adult guides the child’s learning by acting as an interpreter and extender of experiences.  The adult helps make ideas and concepts understandable and meaningful for the child.

The storybook is the central focus of teaching and learning.  The book is the program and not just an adjunct to it.  This means that all activities and concepts flow from the selected storybook and the book itself provides the organization.

Within the framework of each storybook, we can incorporate major goals for each child.  The child’s developmental needs are interwoven into the storybook and activities related to it.  Activities are expanded or adapted for specific children and their interests and extended into everyday life routines.

Storybooks allow repetition

Children enjoy and ask for repetition of stories.  How many parents have not grown tired of reading the same words over and over again to their child or of hearing the same song repeatedly?  Children take pleasure in the repetition.  This is the same for children with special needs.  The predictability and sameness seem to be reassuring.  The repetition also helps them process the information more fully, better understand the meaning of words and predict what will happen next.  Children tend to participate more in shared book reading after hearing a story repeatedly (Crowe, 2000; Vander Woude and Barton, 2003).  The familiarity helps the children join in and ask more questions.  Repetition also helps children learn and use new words (Justice, et al., 2005).

Storybooks promote development

Shared storybook reading can enhance development in a wide range of areas, including cognition, language, communication, social skills, behavior and academic knowledge.  Although there are a few studies on the impact of repeated storybook reading with children with special needs, there are more studies involving typically developing children.  These investigations, reviewed in Chapter 2, provide us with clear evidence about the effectiveness of shared storybook reading in promoting development in children.

Storybooks present a more complete and complex language model

When we have a conversation with another person, we can use nonverbal information within the setting to bolster our words and meaning.  We can use non-specific words, like “this” or “over there”, allowing the context to provide clarification.  Contributions between conversational partners are rapid-fire, usually occurring within three to five seconds.  Because of the time constraints and the support of the context, we use many incomplete statements.  We also tend to use shorter and simpler sentences.

Written language in books tends to be more complex and complete.  Vocabulary in children’s storybooks contains three times as many uncommon words (that is, words that are not in the 1000 most common words in English) as adult conversation (Trelease, 2006).  In other words, we tend to come across many more complex and unfamiliar words in children’s storybooks than we do in everyday conversation.  The majority of sentences in children’s storybooks are also more complete and longer.  This is why storybooks provide effective models for teaching language skills.

Storybook-based teaching and learning is a gentle and positive approach which can be effective and interesting to a wide array of children.  A storybook-based approach can also incorporate teaching and learning principles that are key to my Learning Preferences and Strengths model described in Every Child Wants to Learn (MacKenzie, 2009).

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